What do you get when you bring a group of complete strangers together to do manual labor on the edge of the Costa Rican jungle? A week full of gut-busting laughter, unbelievable wildlife observations, and a beach prepped for leatherback sea turtles to lay their eggs.
The EPI Alumni Reunion to Pacuare Reserve exceeded all my expectations. Being the first course I have ever coordinated, in addition to being EPI’s first Alumni Reunion, I was buzzing with anxiety getting off the plane in San Jose, Costa Rica. The list of things that could go wrong repeated in my head as I sweat my way through international customs.
What if I’m surrounded by a bunch of regular people who aren’t goofy? What if all the wildlife of Costa Rica decides to hide while we are in the field? What if someone smuggles an invasive species back to the U.S. and it's all my fault?
Ana Beatriz, the Costa Rican instructor (and EPI alum) who met us outside the airport, immediately squashed my unreasonable concerns. Right away, I felt safe knowing we were in good hands. I also knew that even with the +18 hour travel day, the newly formed group had an infectious positive energy that would carry us through our volunteer work. Everything would be okay.
What I couldn’t anticipate that first night was that everything was going to be so much more than okay.
Despite the wide array of education, interests, hometowns, and ages, the group got along like we had been digging holes on the beach together for years. At one moment, a master’s student in mechanical engineering was drinking out of a coconut alongside a Nashville-based singer-songwriter. The next, an 18-year-old from Moscow, Idaho was discussing climate policy with a 7th-grade science teacher from rural New York. No matter who was paired together, the conversation and laughter flowed as naturally as the Pacuare River into the Caribbean Sea.
"This was an amazing experience for me and I needed it. I’ve been feeling like I’m falling into the routine “daily grind” of life and so I truly needed an opportunity to meet new people, learn about a new culture, volunteer to help amazing animals, and get out of my comfort zone," -Ellie Metzger, 2023 EPI Alumni Reunion Participant.
Our objective was to place large location markers (think mile marker, but driftwood) in the sand every 25 meters along the 6-kilometer beach. By having precise points of reference, Research Assistants are better able to report where they discover sea turtle nest locations and relocate them to the safety of the hatchery with greater ease.
When our group was initially briefed on the reunion logistics, it was made abundantly clear that while we would be helping the turtles, we would not be seeing them. Nesting season is from March through October, leaving our January trip right in the middle of the “not a chance” season.
Try telling that to the eight green sea turtle hatchlings we found wriggling beneath the sand!
EPI staff and visitors often speak of “Pacuare Magic,” a phenomenon I wildly underestimated. While surely there is a logical explanation rooted in science, magic is the only answer I have regarding our turtle sighting. On a volunteer program with highlight after highlight, it is a bold statement to say that watching these hatchlings take their turn at surviving the sea was undoubtedly the best part of my experience.
With the surprise bundle of baby turtles, curtains of intricate orb spider webs over our bedroom door frames, and a baby boa constrictor who greeted us at our work site, the Pacuare Magic really showed up. However, the real magic to me was the group of people I shared those observations with. Disconnecting from the chaos of “real life” and reconnecting with humans in the outdoors lends the opportunity to create friendships and memories unlike any other scenario can. For those of you who are EPI Alumni, you know that to be true!
I don’t know when, where, or who I will be with for the next EPI Alumni reunion, but I will go into the next one knowing that everything will be so much more than okay.
This experience would not have been possible without the generosity of the Franke Family scholarship donation! Here is a special thank you from some of the scholarship awardees:
Want to be the first to know about the next EPI Alumni Reunion? Email Sierra Deimling at firstname.lastname@example.org for details!